It creates scenarios in which hardship is experienced without being cruel or unfair to the child.
Kids need to be outside. Fresh air, exercise, and a chance to play freely and imaginatively are crucial ingredients in raising a healthy, happy child. Science supports what parents already know – that outdoor time improves focus, burns off pent-up energy, and boosts the grumpiest of moods. It even raises test scores, which shows that schools should be prioritizing recess, not cutting it.
Nature's benefits don't stop there. Spending time outside also teaches kids to cope with challenging situations, both emotional and physical. It allows for scenarios in which a certain degree of character-building hardship is experienced without being cruel or unfair to the child. In other words, it's a perfect setting for resilience training.Take a long hike, for example. Over the course of several hours spent trekking along a rough trail, a child may have to go longer between snacks, water, and rest than he or she would normally like. The child will feel discomfort on a level that he or she wouldn't feel at home because it would seem inappropriate to construct it artificially in a domestic environment. I can't imagine telling my kids at home, "No, you can't have water right now. Hang in there for another 10 minutes." But if we were on a final stretch of trail, I'd say, "See that lookout up ahead? We'll stop for water when we get there." Same goes for aching feet. We can stop for a few minutes to rest, find a walking stick, or lean on each other, but inevitably the kids will have to get back up and keep on trudging.
Jacob Baynham, writing for Outside Online, believes that nature is a particularly good teacher when it comes to building emotional resilience in children. He tells a story about his four-year-old son Theo losing a beloved stuffed monkey on a six-mile hike through the Canadian Rockies, and of Theo's ensuing, all-consuming grief. (Losing a toy may seem minor to an adult, but for a kid it's a small death.) The monkey was eventually recovered when Baynham ran the entire trail the following morning, but after the trip he followed up with child psychologist Laura Markham out of curiosity.
"When kids go hiking, they learn to leverage fatigue, hunger, and pain toward an earned reward — a peak, a lake, or a picturesque lunch. When they’re paddling a canoe with someone, they learn to work together — and if it flips, they learn about fear. Other lessons are more philosophical. 'One of the amazing lessons of nature is that nothing is permanent,' Markham told me. 'The tree falls over. I don’t think that’s lost on children.'"
These are powerful psychological lessons for kids. They learn to push through the fatigue, the aching legs, the dry throat, the rumbling tummy, because – with time and practice – they understand it's temporary. They learn that if they tackle it cheerfully, it will be easier, and Mom will be more inclined to give them an occasional piggyback ride if they're not whining constantly. Perhaps most importantly, they experience the tremendous sense of accomplishment that comes at the end of hard work.
My kids still speak with pride about the time they climbed Sulphur Mountain in Banff at ages 4 and 6. They have long forgotten the struggle and are unaware of the emotional effort it took on my part to cajole them up 3.5 miles of switchbacks and a 2,200-ft elevation gain while carrying a baby on my back, but that's OK. We did it and it's one of our favorite memories. Perhaps most useful is knowing they can tackle nearly any hike, canoe trip, or outdoor adventure now that they've conquered Sulphur Mountain.
Look at nature as an opportunity to teach your kids valuable lessons that you wouldn't be able to elsewhere. It's a living classroom that can make your child resilient and imprint upon them the message that, even when the going is hard, you just have to keep going.